Italy’s steel workers risk cancer or hunger

In the impoverished city of Taranto, work that has provoked cancer is preferable to starving.

Italy's steel workers risk cancer or hunger
Prosecutors in Taranto say toxic emissions have caused at least 400 deaths. Photo: Alfonso di Vincenzo/AFP

As the main blast furnace at one of Europe's most polluted steelworks belches its last toxic cloud, activist Fabio Matacchiera was the only one there celebrating.

"Seeing this monster shut down was really emotional, the city should have been here with champagne," says Matacchiera, who has been fighting for 25 years to close the Ilva factory that provides work for around 16,000 people – and who has been threatened at gunpoint for his efforts.

Here, where red iron oxide dust from the factory stains balconies and tombstones, a full-scale struggle is under way between employees of Europe's biggest steelworks who rely on its operation to put food on the table, and judges who have forced its partial closure on environmental grounds.

Blast Furnace Five will be offline for about a year while work is carried out to bring it into line with European regulations. But in the meantime the mammoth plant, temporarily nationalized this month, continues to produce steel.

Nothing more than a fence separates the smoking chimneys and the nearest houses – the closest just 200 metres away in the Tamburi quarter, where death notices are plastered on walls amid graffiti of gas masks and poison warnings.

The barrier does little to stop minerals and carcinogenic dioxins from covering the city, where child tumours are up 54 percent and the death rate among under-14-year-olds is 21 percent higher than in the surrounding Puglia region.

Matacchiera, 53, founder of the Anti-Dioxin Fund which raises money for research into the health consequences of Ilva, says tests have shown "even the milk of breastfeeding mothers is contaminated with toxins" from the plant.

'Like the Middle Ages'

But ex-workers like Vincenzo Pignatelli, 62, who smelted steel for 28 years before falling ill with Leukaemia, insist the plant is all Taranto has.

"Four of my co-workers have died of the same disease. Even though my teeth are crumbling away and I may only live another four of five years…I would get my son a job there because it's about survival.

"It's like in the Middle Ages, either you die of hunger or hard work."  

Tucked between two bays, the coastal city – which is also home to a refinery owned by Italy's largest oil company, Eni, and a cement works – was accountable for 92 percent of the country's dioxin before the steel shutdown began.

The decision to keep Ilva smelting has been a controversial one: the company was put under special administration in 2013, when the Riva family that owned it was accused of failing to prevent toxic emissions from polluting the city.

Prosecutors in Taranto, who say such emissions have caused at least 400 deaths, have placed 50 people under investigation for corruption and environmental damage in a case expected to go to trial later this year.

Prime Minister Matteo Renzi has promised to clean up Ilva and sell it on, and locals cheer support for one of the few large-scale employers in the area – where the jobless rate stands at 20.6 percent, well above the 12.7 percent national average.

But critics say the industry is in decline, and warn the plant has had its day.

China is the global heavyweight of steel production, churning out 779 million tonnes in 2013 compared with Italy's 24.1 million tonnes, according to the Italian steelworks federation.

But anaemic growth has created a world-wide supply surplus and output is slowing, with production in China down 4.7 percent last year.

The decline will not erase the mark Ilva has already left on the area. A far cry from the region's famed golden beaches, olive groves and baroque towns, the plant's huge red and white chimneys dominate the landscape, its roaring furnaces masking a dismal bill of health.

The company was declared insolvent in January with debts of €2.91 billion, and is hemorrhaging an estimated €80 million a month.

Off-shore accounts

Despite clean-up costs of an estimated €5 billion according to environmental agency Arpa Puglia, Renzi has promised just €2 billion for Ilva – including a state loan and over €1 billion seized from the Riva family.

Most of the Riva money is held by Swiss banks in offshore accounts, and the plant's court-appointed receiver Barbara Valenzano warns those funds may not be easily recovered.

Valenzano says a clean-up that began three years ago has so far seen only the cheapest improvements implemented "at the expense of the costly ones, which would have guaranteed environment and health protection measures".

Three state-appointed commissioners are overseeing Ilva, and the government intends to create a new company. But details are thin on the ground, and workers at the factory gates decried a "chaotic situation" with serious managerial failings.

Italy's anti-establishment Five Star Movement (M5S) has accused the government of creating a 'Save Ilva' decree that favours the banks – reported to have loaned the company over €1 billion so far.

It has also slammed Renzi for a clause in the decree that gives the commissioners immunity, meaning they cannot be held legally accountable for any shortcomings or errors in the environmental clean-up.

The movement is not the only one to accuse the state of putting Ilva's survival before the health of local residents.

Angelo Bonelli, head of Italy's Green party, has repeatedly called into question state and regional authorities' unwillingness to sound the alarm on a business that has seen high levels of toxins found in locally produced food.

"This is a city ridden with illegality, a city which brings only suffering," he said.

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Life in Italy: ‘Now I’ve got the hang of it, doing the washing has become almost a pleasure’

Freed from concerns about the unpredictable Scottish weather, Damian Killeen writes about his newfound enjoyment of hanging out laundry since moving to Taranto, southern Italy - along with a new companion.

Life in Italy: 'Now I've got the hang of it, doing the washing has become almost a pleasure'
Photo: Jason Briscoe/Unsplash

In the shop the woman said, in Italian, ‘You speak Italian very well’. It was a welcoming lie.

I had struggled to explain that I wanted one of those things over there, to dry my clothes on. “Uno stendino“, she said. I paid what I now know was over the odds to possess my first domestic purchase in Italy and carried it back to my apartment, scrutinized, it seemed, by everyone in the street.

Did they share my pleasure and pride in this new acquisition? Or were they staring curiously at this foreigner – a male at that – being seen in public with such an item more commonly associated with a housewife, to whom, I learned, whole emporia full of stendini and other household items are dedicated.

The stendino and I lived together in Taranto in the south of Italy, in a third floor casa vacanza, or holiday let. The owner allowed me to rent the apartment for a longer period than legally allowed so long as I would vacate it for a few days to allow him to let it, for much more than I was paying, to Navy personnel attending an annual recruitment drive. A working trip to Rome meant that I had no problem with this arrangement and I stayed in that flat, with my stendino, for several months.

Not that we were entirely alone. I had friends and other visitors round and even the occasional stopover. But my stendino was a daily presence.


I realised that I had not felt the same way about the conventional British ‘clothes horse’, that bore no relationship to any horse I had ever seen, provided limited hanging space and seemed to be more of a nuisance than a help. In truth, I was proud of my stendino; my pride was growing and warming into a feeling of companionship that I had never experienced with any other domestic appliance, except, perhaps, for the double oven in my Scottish home and a few other kitchen gadgets that I remember fondly.

Do Italians, I wondered, feel the same way about their stendini as I do about mine?

The logistics of washing sheets, towels, tablecloths and clothes for myself and guests took a while to sort out in an apartment with no drying machine and no outdoor space, except a small balcony facing the street and a slightly larger one facing the well at the centre of the apartment block.

This balcony also faced all the other balconies in the block, several with their stendini on display.

Stendini, almost invariably white plastic, have X-shaped legs and two wings that, when extended, double the available hanging space. From where I am sitting now there are several to be seen on the front balconies of apartments up to eight stories high, basking in the evening sunlight, some working, i.e. draped in clothes, others just enjoying the final warmth of the day.

Whilst the stendino is good for smaller items of clothing, another fix is needed to cope with sheets, big towels and anything else requiring space and greater exposure. This is provided by three or four lines parallel to the balcony and attached to brackets fixed to either end. 

For someone whose ankles turn to jelly when faced with even a picture or film of an edge leading to a drop of more than a few centimetres, the vertiginous prospect of leaning out to hang a sheet on the farthest line brought on an attack of what, in childhood, I had learned to call “the collywobbles”.

However, faced with the necessity to get my bedding dry, I forced myself to accept the support of the balcony rail, spread the items out and fixed the pegs with my eyes barely open and my stomach in my mouth. It gets better, but it is still a challenge.

Now that I have got the hang of it, washing has become almost a pleasure, with the washing machine on in the early morning and most things dry by lunchtime. A few hand wash items that take longer to dry decorate my stendino and are ready to come in before the sun goes down.

In contrast with the vagaries of the Scottish weather and the constant anxiety to “bring the washing inside before it rains”, the south of Italy offers a degree of laundry security for most of the year that I find particularly reassuring.

Photo: Erin Doering/Unsplash

Meanwhile, if, as happens quite often in the early months of the year, the weather turns foul and the rain buckets down, my stendino accommodates a surprising amount of washing with none of the trauma associated with the lines and can easily be moved inside

The stendino moved with me when I changed apartments to house-sit a granny flat for a friend. There was a stendino already in residence and my first thought was that I should use this rather than replace it with my own; after all, this elderly stendino belonged there.

But it wasn’t long before I began to feel guilty about abandoning my new companion. The resident stendino was soon relegated to a cupboard and mine was re-installed in the role to which we had both become accustomed. This apartment also had its hanging balcony at the back, where my stendino now lives.

I am looking for somewhere else to live in the city, a more permanent arrangement that I can call my home. While the friends who accompany me to view possible purchases explore the size of the rooms, the plumbing arrangements and assess the expanse of the ingenious, above ceiling storage places, I sneak quietly out to the balcony to investigate the clothes drying arrangements and, in particular to see if my stendino might be happy there.

I find it hard to imagine life in Italy without il mio stendino but a recent event brought me face to face with a reality that, so far, I had avoided.

One of my regular tasks is to take the domestic waste out to the array of bins located close to my apartment which are emptied every night around midnight by the City’s waste disposal team.

On this occasion my attention was caught short by the sight of a stendino leaning against one of the bins. Wire framed, not plastic, its paintwork was flaked and scratched. Structurally, however, it appeared complete. What had led to this rejection, this dismissal from its home? A younger, brighter model, perhaps. Or a move, like mine, to a new home with an alpha stendino already in place. Was it a dead stendino, what might that mean? If it was still alive, should I rescue it; should I, maybe, create a sanctuary for abandoned stendini? Should I stop thinking like this?

I left that stendino where it was, cradled in the light from a neon crucifix atop an adjacent church, and returned to my apartment.

Certainly, the old stendino in the cupboard might one day find itself in the piazza waiting for its midnight transport to who knows where but, whatever accusations my friends make about my obsession, I will keep company with my own stendino until one or the other of us is no longer able to wear our clothes or perform any other useful purpose.

Until then, we will sit together on the balcony watching the sun go down over Taranto in all its multi-coloured glory, preparing ourselves for another day.

Would you like to write about your life in Italy for The Local? Get in touch.

Photo: Hayley Clues/Unsplash